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Henri Dutilleux, a leading French composer who wrote music of luminous perfection, died Wednesday in Paris at age 97. His family announced the death, which was reported by one of his publishers, Schott Music, and the Agence-France Presse.
Throughout his career, which took off after World War II with performances of his First Symphony, Dutilleux wrote music with particular musicians in mind. His cello concerto Tout un monde lointain was written for Mstislav Rostropovich and the violin concerto L'arbre des songes for Isaac Stern. One of his last works, Le temps l'horloge, was composed for soprano Renée Fleming, who won a Grammy for her recording of the work.
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, whom Dutilleux asked to record his 2003 piece Correspondances, attested to the composer's perfectionist tendencies. At a record release party in Paris in January to celebrate the composer's 97th birthday, an event recorded for a promotional trailer, Salonen recalled the recording sessions: "I indeed remember moments in Correspondances, when after a take I would turn towards Mr. Dutilleux and I said, 'Well, what do you think?' and he said, 'Well, you know, this phrase should be a little faster and maybe you might want to take a little bit more time there."
Dutilleux, who continually revised his works, abandoned most of his compositions that preceded his Piano Sonata, begun in 1946. He composed the piece for the pianist Geneviève Joy, whom he married the same year.
Born in Angers in 1916 into a family with artistic connections (his grandfather was a composer and close friend of Gabriel Fauré, his great-grandfather a painter and friend of Eugène Delacroix), Dutilleux studied first at the local conservatory in Douai. As a teenager, after the family moved to Paris, he attended the Paris Conservatory, winning the Prix de Rome in 1938 on his third attempt. After the outbreak of World War II, Dutilleux was enlisted to carry stretchers. Later, he held posts at the Paris Opera and French Radio. His teaching jobs were few, but significant, with stints at the École Normale de Musique and Paris Conservatory and frequent visits to Tanglewood as a guest instructor.
Tom Service, writing for the Guardian, notes that Dutilleux never fit (or associated himself) with any particular school of composition. His anti-ideological approach to music history, Service says, resulted in "some of the most poetically flexible music of recent decades." Dutilleux's rich coloration, shifting textures and streams of melody seem to form a style of his own, with influences of Debussy and Bartók.
Dutilleux's love of literature resulted in numerous songs, incidental music for Wuthering Heights, and Correspondances, in which he set texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent Van Gogh. His family ties with visual artists and his lifelong love of painting surfaced not only in the calligraphy of his beautifully crafted scores but also in one of his best-known works, Timbres, espace, movement, a 1978 orchestral piece inspired by Van Gogh's Starry Night.
In 2012 Dutilleux was the first to receive the New York Philharmonic's newly established Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music. The award resulted in performances of three of his works at Avery Fisher Hall last summer. His other awards include the French Grand Prix de la Musique, an honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a MIDEM lifetime achievement award.
At a Paris event in January marking the release of a new album and his 97th birthday, Dutilleux, in a wheelchair and slightly frail, was appreciative of both his longevity and of the musicians and recording industry colleagues gathered around him.
"I have had the great joy of living a long life," the composer announced. "And you are, each and every one of you, doing all that can be done to make the end of it as easy and enjoyable as possible. Thanks to all of you."
Dutilleux's legacy will hang on relatively few perfectly polished compositions such as The Shadows of Time, his symphonies, Timbres and the concertos. But it's not the quantity of pieces that's important to Tom Service:
The influence of Dutilleux's music on the 20th and 21st centuries isn't to be measured in how his work revolutionized the languages of musical possibility, or even in the roster of his pupils (who include Gérard Grisey). Instead, his music is a realization of a complete world, independent of concerns for cutting-edge contemporaneity, and one that becomes more essential the more you hear it, above all for how he transforms his astonishing compositional refinement into real emotional immediacy.